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As UNLV enters postseason play against Wyoming, defense becomes even more important

Cowboys come in confident after playing physical in loss Saturday, while Rebels attempt to win title on home court


Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV’s Oscar Bellfield and Mike Moser reach for a loose ball along with Wyoming guard JayDee Luster during their game Saturday, March 3, 2012 at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV won the game 74-63 to wind up an unbeaten season at home.

Every year around this time, you hear that defense is the most important factor in postseason play. Games slow down. Each possession becomes more valuable than the last.

It’s not that simple, of course, but it is based on truth. And the reason, according to Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt, is that coaches are trying to eliminate a nasty four-letter word that has sent many teams home packing: Luck.

“You always want to avoid luck coming into play,” Shyatt said. “Putting the ball in the hole sometimes requires a little luck, so if you focus on the things you can control most of the time, you have more (success).”

That sounds silly to fans who believe Shyatt’s sixth-seeded Cowboys will need a little luck to get past the third-seeded Rebels in the Mountain West quarterfinals at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, but you can’t really blame him for believing in his team, especially when he has some recent success to build on.

Last Saturday, Wyoming lost 74-63 at the Thomas & Mack Center in a game in which two Cowboys fouled out and three more had four fouls. And UNLV didn’t dominate the game as much as the score indicated.

“It’s the first time we’ve substantially faced foul trouble as a team,” Shyatt said. “We were sort of running out of players with about six minutes to go, and I was almost surprised we were within two possessions.”

While other teams begrudgingly come to UNLV’s home court this weekend, Wyoming comes in confident it can pull the upset. The Cowboys were very physical with the Rebels on Saturday, and while that jaw-jacking resulted in a technical foul on Wyoming, that could easily go the other way Thursday night.

Be physical. Play defense. Stay out of foul trouble.

That’s Shyatt’s plan, and it sounds pretty good to UNLV coach Dave Rice, too. While Rice would like to make plans to keep his team fresh for possibly three games in three days, he knows the postseason format doesn’t allow for that.

“The difficult part is if you don’t win your first game, there is no second game,” Rice said. “The only thing I can worry about is whatever it takes to win the first game.”

Rice said everybody in UNLV’s rotation is available for Thursday night. Seniors Kendall Wallace and Chace Stanback, who are both dealing with nagging knee injuries and averaged 14 minutes against Wyoming, have benefited from the days off.

“I like the fact that we had the extra day,” Rice said. “Typically, we’d be playing (Wednesday).”

Sophomore guard Reggie Smith didn’t play against the Cowboys — a coach’s decision — but he’s available off the bench and may get significant time if the Rebels are able to build a lead.

Stanback’s minutes on Senior Night seemed to be the result of poor play — 0-for-4, three fouls, two turnovers — than an injury, which should actually be very encouraging for fans. His production has more peaks and valleys than any other Rebel this season. Before that win, UNLV’s 16th at the Mack this season, Stanback had scored less than 10 points only two other times at home.

Stanback said his key to bouncing back has been to stay humble, no matter how he’s playing. Something else that will help is the motivation to win the first tournament title on their home court since 2008.

“There’s definitely a sense of pressure on us, but we embrace it,” Stanback said.

The potential for three games in three days is something that college players don’t face any other time of the year, but it’s not unfamiliar territory. They just need to channel their younger days.

“I learned from AAU, the team that plays the hardest, the longest throughout the weekend usually wins. That’s definitely going to be us,” sophomore forward Mike Moser said. “We really need this. We really need to go into this postseason on a good note.”

The Rebels' chance begins Thursday. And it starts with defense.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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  1. Work hard, guys and great things are ahead! Go REBELS!!!

  2. Do not look past Wyoming. Everyday is Monday.

  3. Cut the BS, prepare for the game, and don't get complacent....treat this game like it's your last one. Go Reb's!

  4. Leave everything on the court Rebels, no second guessing from here on out. As long as you play to your fullest, and do the best you can do, the sky's the limit.

  5. The Rebels can win every game from here on out if Stanback, Marshall, Moser, and Bellfield are clicking.